A debut novel and one picked as an Amazon Rising Star this year, Haynes has written something that I feel can’t help but draw comparisons to The Secret History. Our narrator, Alex Morris, has lost her fiancé in horrific circumstances and to help recover, leaves her London life behind, moves to Edinburgh and takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit, a unit run by one of her best friends from her University days. One particular class of five awkward, wayward, unpleasant and yes violent teens gets under her skin. They’re known as a problem class and they intimidate every other teacher in the unit. Alex is determined to reach out to them and to help them so uses dramatherapy techniques with Greek Tragedies to try and turn them into normal functioning adults. That this Does Not Go Well is only a surprise, I expect, to Alex. A new tragedy is unfolding in front of her, but she is still too shell shocked by the events in London to see it.
Awkward teenagers. Greek Tragedies. Fucked up situations. You can see why the comparisons to Donna Tartt’s debut would be made, no? But this is a much more straightforward affair. It’s very well written, Haynes clearly knows her Greek drama (an afterword about this will really leave you in no doubt) and she has a way with characters too. Alex is deeply flawed, which makes fully sympathising with her situation very difficult. Which is a great element to the book. If she had been painted as a holier than thou do-gooder, you wouldn’t believe in or care about her. Alex makes bad decisions for good reasons and is a bit of a mess, which makes her eminently relatable. And there is a running joke over how perfect her solicitor is that made me laugh more than once.
Not all of the five teens which make up the core group Alex teaches come off quite so well. It took a while before I could differentiate between two of the three girls and remember their names. Also, Haynes plays very coy with revealing exactly what has happened, even though it’s told in flashback. Which is fine, except it’s obvious what’s happened from about halfway through due to use of diary excerpts throughout the book, so the coyness is unnecessary and becomes slightly irksome. That doesn’t mean that watching it all play out is boring, far from it. It still manages to be a page turner, even when you know what’s coming, and that’s no mean feat, really.
Ultimately, this is definitely worth a read and Natalie Haynes is an author to watch.